Several years ago Congress attempted to remove itself and the president of the United States from mail problems. After a debate, which included Democratic and Republican administrations, the Congress passed the Postal Reorganization Act of 1970, which was designed to make the new U.S. Postal Service independent. The thought was that by removing it from politics and running it "like a business," mail costs would go down and services would go up.
Just the opposite has happened, and that's why the House of Representatives last year, and again this year, is raising the question of another postal reorganization. While I realize some people think we want this for reasons of patronage, or to satisfy the postal unions, I think the concern goes deeper.
Since 1971, first-class rates have risen 150 percent, compared with an 87.5 percent rise in the Consumer Price Index. The Postal "Service" no longer extends door-to-door delivery to new neighborhoods, many small post offices have been closed, hours have been shortened, the Postal Service has been toying with the idea of eliminating the six/day delivery, and we all have horror stories about the type of service we get.
Had I been a congressman in 1970, my vote would have been cast for reorganization. It was worth a try, and much good has come from it. For one thing, the labor force has been reduced through attrition by 10 percent. Considering that labor costs are 85 percent of the postal budget, this is commendable. Second, taking politics out of the rate-making process and giving that responsibility to an independent Postal Rate Commission continues to make good sense.
However, the issue now is: What kind of postal service do we want next year and beyond? First, what about rates for letter mail? If first-class stamps (15 cents) keep rising at the present rate, another eight years like the last eight years will lead to a 38 cents first-class stamp. However, unless Congress changes the law beginning in FY'80, the subsidy starts dropping 10 percent a year, thus leading more likely to a 50 cents stamp by 1987.
Second, how will postal services to the public fare? As I mentioned, USPS is a labor-intensive industry, with 85 percent of its costs attributed to personnel. Having eliminated 10 percent of the jobs during the last eight years, can USPS cut costs further without more and more cuts in service? Unless we get machines that go door-to-door, I do not believe USPS can absorb more personnel losses without reducing services further.
In testimony before Congress, Postmaster General William Bolger stated that there are three ways to finance USPS: 1) raise rates; 2) cut services; 3) increase government subsidies. He's right, and Congress must make the choice by our action or inaction this year, because, as indicated earlier, existing subsidies are reduced next year.
These choices get to basic decisions about the mails because raising rates along the lines of the past eight years will drive many people to other forms of communication, especially business, which accounts for 80 percent of first-class mail volume. Without further subsidies, this would lead to ever higher rates for individuals. Reducing services would continue the current trend of volume losses, especially from a market share standpoint. Considering the alternative choices, and where each would lead USPS, I think now is the time to raise the question of whether we really need good universal mail service for every American at reasonable rates. I think the issue should be decided now - not when it's too late to recoveer without tremendous start-up or, at best, renewal costs.
It was with these thoughts in mind that I authored amendments in the pending legislation that abolish the Board of Governors, require presidential appointment of the postmaster general, eliminate the present automatic billion-dollar subsidy in favor of subsidies based on justified need, and dedicate any increases in the current subsidy level to holding down first-class rates.
The legislation, which will soon be considered by the full House, is not a return to postal politics as usual. We keep many of the good features of the 1970 Postal Act. It was not a bad experience; we can keep its strong features, but we've learned some lessons, too.
Since 1970, ever-increasing rates and reduced services have hurt USPS and clouded its future. This has occurred despite billion-dollar subsidies every year. Thus, I think subsidies need to be continued, although this time there should be strings attached and realistic goals.
The 96th Congress should recognize that postal independence is a political pipe dream incompatible with good postal service for every American.